Hurricane Paula Weakens As It Nears Western Cuba

(Source : Ap) Hurricane Paula weakened Wednesday afternoon on a rain-drenching crawl toward the lush tobacco-growing farmlands of western Cuba, threatening to inundate an area still seeking to recover from three major hurricanes in 2008. At 5 p.m. EDT, Paula had dropped a notch from a Category 2 to a Category 1 storm as maximum sustained winds declined to 85 mph (140 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The hurricane's small core was centered some 45 miles (70 kilometers) west-southwest of Cuba's western tip amid reports of heavy rain in the region, hours after Paula brushed past Mexico's Yucatan Peninusla and the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. After stalling briefly on Wednesday afternoon, Paula began a slow slog to the north-northeast at about 5 mph (7 kph), the center said amid forecasts of a turn Thursday more to the northeast and east. The hurricane was expected to pass very near or over western Cuba sometime Wednesday night or early Thursday, U.S. forecasters added. They predicted more gradual weakening by the storm over the next day or two amid possible heavy rains. Cuban authorities issued a tropical storm warning for Havana and areas surrounding the capital as western Cuba braced. Forecasters said Paula threatened a storm surge and anywhere between 3 and 6 inches of rainfall on parts of Cuba. The storm was small in area, with hurricane force winds extending just 15 miles (30 kilometers) from its center. Mexican authorities earlier said American Mickey Goodwin, 54, of Corpus Christi, Texas, drowned Tuesday while swimming off a Cancun beach after he ignored warnings and red flags alerting to dangerous waters from the storm. It was the only fatality reported so far. Cuba's chief meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said Paula was expected to take a trajectory slightly north of previous projections. "The hurricane's intensity ought to diminish as it approaches Cuba, which is obviously good news," Rubiera said on state-run television.